NASHVILLE — As the angst rages in many corners of Toronto Blue Jays fandom, with each free agent signing elsewhere, each self-serving quote from a player agent, every move made by a team other than the Jays stoking the flames of fan outrage higher and higher…it turns out that Toronto appears as though they’re going be a heck of a lot better to begin 2016 than they were this past Opening Day.
The Blue Jays have clearly begun this off-season (which still has three months less a week until Spring Training games begin) by staying out of the deep end, as far as free agent commitments go.
Some would argue they overspent early by giving J.A. Happ a three-year deal worth $36 million, and there’s an argument to be made that two years and $26 million for Marco Estrada was a steep price as well given the fact he would likely not even have received a qualifying offer but for his two phenomenal post-season starts.
Still, overpays or not, those contracts aren’t seen as “spending” when pitchers like David Price, Zack Greinke, Jordan Zimmermann and Jeff Samardzija come off the board. They each signed contracts of at least five years in length that range in average annual value from $18 million to just under $34.5 million.
It irks Blue Jays fans even more when Price’s agent, Bo McKinnis, publicly states that the ace lefty would “absolutely” have come back to Toronto, but they didn’t even make an offer. This makes it sound like, because he so wanted to come back to Toronto, Price would have gladly accepted any reasonable offer. It’s far more likely, though, that Price’s return was contingent on the Blue Jays offering up a seven-year deal worth somewhere in the neighbourhood of $27-30 million per season.
On the first day of these Winter Meetings here at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center, Mark Lowe signed a two-year deal with the Detroit Tigers. Lowe, who was a valuable member of the Blue Jays’ bullpen down the stretch behind Roberto Osuna, Brett Cecil and usually, Aaron Sanchez, parlayed his big year into an outlandish $6.5 million per season (and good for him). With the Jays in need of bullpen help more than anything else, this led to more upset among the masses.
The truth is, though, two years at $6.5 million per is an awful lot of scratch for your fourth-best reliever (assuming Sanchez stays in the bullpen — if he doesn’t, it’s even a lot for your third). Lowe is worth a lot more to the Tigers given their tire-fire of a bullpen these last few years.
Price was an outstanding addition to the Blue Jays’ rotation last season, and an argument could be made that he was the reason they were able to turn things around and win the A.L. East. But don’t forget the Blue Jays went 30-13 in August and September in games in which Price didn’t pitch, which is a 113-win pace over an entire season.
The argument could be made, as well, that the additions of Troy Tulowitzki and Ben Revere meant just as much, if not more, to the Blue Jays’ championship aspirations than Price’s arrival. Getting Jose Reyes out of town and the dangerous combination of Danny Valencia and Chris Colabello out of left field meant the Jays were immediately a massive amount better at turning balls in play into outs.
It’s clearly reflected in the numbers. Prior to the all-star break, Blue Jays pitchers’ batting average against on balls in play was .293. After the break, which includes two weeks of Reyes at shortstop and Valencia/Colabello in the outfield, that opponents’ BABIP was .263. That means the upgrade in defence at the deadline resulted in the Blue Jays turning 10 per cent more balls in play into outs in the second half of the season.
That defence is still there, whether the Jays keep Revere or deal him for pitching help and hand left field to Michael Saunders or Dalton Pompey, or both. The defence in left field will still have gone from subpar to above average. The defence at shortstop has gone from borderline embarrassing to outstanding.
The offence remains terrifying, with Chris Colabello being the only Blue Jay hitter who had a major and unexpected jump in production last season (and he didn’t even break with the team), and the starting pitching — with this kind of team behind them — is not only good enough, but much better than last year’s starting five that featured Sanchez, Daniel Norris and Drew Hutchison.
Say what you will about R.A. Dickey — and many “outraged” fans often refer to him as a fifth starter — the much-maligned knuckleballer posted a 3.11 ERA and 1.14 WHIP from June 1 on, allowing more than three runs only four times in 23 starts. He also gave up just one run in the only must-win playoff game he started, Game 4 of the ALDS against Texas.
Marco Estrada (who wasn’t in the Jays’ rotation to begin 2015) took a massive and wholly unexpected step forward, putting together a season in which he earned some well-deserved Cy Young votes. Asking him to repeat that is quite a lot, but even 75 per cent of Estrada’s 2015 next season makes him a solid third starter.
The bullpen clearly needs work, with not a whole lot of there beyond Osuna, Sanchez and Cecil. It’ll need even more work if Sanchez is moved back to the rotation, which is a distinct possibility.
But to be sitting at the Winter Meetings as the defending division champions who need to work on their bullpen (but already with two or three strong late-inning guys) and their back-up middle infielder, and who could also use some more starting pitching depth is a strong position in which to be sitting.
There was no David Price, no Zack Greinke, no Jordan Zimmermann and not even a Mark Lowe. But what there is is a tremendous baseball team that needs not major surgery but a couple of tweaks here and there, the big moves having been made five months ago. In less than a month, Drew Hutchison has gone from being the Blue Jays’ third starter to being their sixth, and that was the kind of depth they needed to build in a hurry.
There are almost three months of off-season left, and almost eight months until the trade deadline. A lot of good players are going to change hands and most of them won’t be coming to Toronto. The Blue Jays will add to their bullpen and their bench, and they could even surprise us by pulling off a trade for an upper-echelon big-leaguer. Regardless, the Jays present an elite offence, an elite defence and a more-than-serviceable pitching staff. Whether you want to believe it or not, this is a pretty good baseball team right now, a lot better than it was on opening day 2015, when they wound up being division champs.
And let’s not forget, it’s not about winning the winter. The 2012 Angels and Marlins, 2013 Blue Jays, 2014 Yankees and 2015 Red Sox and Padres can tell you all about that.